When I decided I wanted to start interviewing digital marketing experts, I have to admit, Mark Traphagen was at the top of my list of people to reach out to. Mark is one of the more visible SEO experts on Google+. He’s the go-to guy on Google Authorship and Author Rank topics.
Mark is way more than the “SEO guy”; in the short time I’ve come to know him, it’s obvious he is quite knowledgeable and passionate about social media, content marketing and Google+ in particular. I enjoy his insights and learn so much from him. I couldn’t be more honored that he responded positively to my interview request and returned answers to my questions.
Marilyn Moran: Mark, you are now the Senior Director of Online Marketing for Stone Temple Consulting (http://www.stonetemple.com/). Your main role will be writing about SEO innovation, particularly between SEO and social media. Can you tell us more about that?
Mark Traphagen: Actually, my main role is to help Stone Temple Consulting to “eat our dog food.” That’s an expression that began at Microsoft in the 1980s and was later adopted as an unofficial motto by Google engineers. It means basically “practice what you preach.” STC has long been a leader in the value of content marketing, and that’s been the foundation of the tremendous success we’ve built for our clients. So my job is to assist CEO Eric Enge in “walking our talk” to make sure STC’s online presence reflects our commitment to quality, effective, content marketing.
MM: You say that Stone Temple Consulting as an agency “gets it” when it comes to where digital marketing is heading and that contributed to your decision to work with them. In your opinion, what sets them apart from other SEO and digital marketing agencies?
Mark: Too many agencies have been operated in a sort of adversarial relationship with Google. They almost seem to have as their operating principle: “If Matt Cutts says to do something, do the opposite.” And frankly, for many years in some ways that attitude worked. While Google constantly preached that they wanted you to build great sites and quality content, their ranking system was too easily gamed, and it was actually more cost effective to play the manipulative games than to invest in “great content.”
But in recent years Google has become much better at detecting and slapping down such SEO games. Now thousands of sites that played those games are struggling to recover from severe ranking penalties, or scrambling to try to prevent them. I’m proud that Stone Temple Consulting saw that trend coming long before most others. So we advised our clients to build sites, content, and promotional capacities that were future-proof. That is, strategies that would not only survive the sure-to-come Google crackdown, but actually thrive because of it. In more recent times, with Hummingbird and the rise of semantic search, Google has moved from just penalizing the “bad guys” to finding better ways to identify and reward the “good guys,” those who are creating true value for people who search.
MM: You mentioned we will hear plenty about author authority from you this year. Do you have any predictions about author rank in 2014?
Mark: If by “author rank” we mean a system whereby Google is able to identify and assess the topical authority of individual authors based on numerous factors, including what other authoritative and topically-relevant authors interact with their content, then I think we are still a long way off from implementation. People who are impatient for author rank to be a reality in search results have no idea of the technical and logistical hurdles Google has to overcome before they would trust author rank enough for it to become a major search ranking factor.
In my article “Understanding Social Identity on the Web Is Hard”, I use the phrase (borrowing from a famous wine commercial of the ’70s), “Google will serve no search ranking factor before its time.” In that article I analyze a recent video by Google’s Matt Cutts where he explains why it is so difficult for Google to trust social signals from non-Google social networks, and how that affects things like evaluating individual authority (i.e., author rank). We’ve heard two consistent messages from Matt over the past year: 1. “Identifying subject authorities is something we want to do and we’re working at it,” and 2) “It’s hard to do given current constraints, and is probably a long term project.
That being said, I believe we are seeing the first real signs of Google employing some rudimentary author-based trust signals. In December 2013 Google implemented a promised reduction in the amount of Authorship rich snippet results being shown in search. Matt Cutts had said they would do this to “improve the quality” of such results. In my in-depth study of how hundreds of authors were affected in that purge, I did see what appeared to be an author-trust factor (although it was harder to detect than other factors (such as the overall quality of publishing sites), it did appear that Google was giving some authors, who consistently publish in-depth and popular content on highly trusted sites, a “free pass” in the purge. In other words, certain authors remain much more likely to have retained full authorship snippets for their content everywhere across the web. As I relate in my article, a couple of Google spokespersons have confirmed that this is indeed a factor.
Now, that’s not author rank, as it isn’t based on topical authority (that I can detect) and doesn’t affect an author’s search rankings (just her likelihood to show an Authorship rich snippet). But it does appear to be a visible step on Google’s part toward acknowledging and promoting more trusted authors.
MM: What social networks or sites do you think will be the breakouts in 2014? Do you think Google Plus will continue to grow and become a bigger player?
Mark: One doesn’t need a crystal ball to see that visually-oriented social sites are going to continue to be “hot” into 2014. While none of them have grown as huge as the big “old guard” social networks, several of them, such as Pinterest, Instagram, and Vine, have extremely devoted followings. At STC we’ve always had a prejudice toward text-based content, but we are adapting to the new visual emphasis as well. We are now creating Pinterest-friendly images for all our blog posts, and including an easy-to-use “Pin it” button on each one. Just a year ago I would have dismissed Pinterest as “not our market,” but I’ve become aware that an increasing number of people from all walks of life are using it as a bookmarking and information-browsing site. We’re already seeing good traffic from our Pinterest pins.
As for Google Plus, many of us who watch it closely feel like a corner has been turned coming into 2014, and we’re beginning to see more widespread adoption, particularly by brands. Slowly but surely, Google+ is overcoming its “ghost town” image (which was never fair or accurate) and brands are becoming aware that it is an essential place for them to build a good presence. Innovations like +Post Ads (still in beta) should bring in even more. +Post Ads allow a brand to pay to push their Google+ posts out into the Google display advertising network on millions of sites worldwide. The ads are fully interactive. People can comment on them, +1 them, share them with friends, and circle the brand right from the ad space. One of the complaints by brands was that Google+ afforded no paid advertising option. When +Post Ads become widely available, not only will brands have a great pay-to-push option, it will be an extremely innovative one, and one that doesn’t ruin the on-site Google+ experience. I call that brilliant.
MM: Anything else is coming in 2014 for Mark Traphagen that you can share?
Mark: As for me personally, just expect to see a lot more of me in 2014. Stone Temple Consulting has hired me to be, in part, “me” online. They recognize that my audience and the content and community I create reflects well on the STC brand, and so I’ve been encouraged to keep building that. In addition to seeking out more writing opportunities on influential sites, I will also be speaking at more conferences. We believe that “real world” networking remains an important part of social networking.
Thank you for taking time out to answer my questions Mark!
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